Low Clearance, No Tolerance

Low Clearance, No Tolerance

2004 collision with parkway bridge inspires call to keep bus drivers off the phone.

On Nov. 14, 2004, a bus driver with Eyre Tour and Travel was chatting with his sister on a hands-free cellular phone as he drove 27 students down the George Washington Memorial Parkway towards the Mount Vernon Estate, according to Ted Lopatkiewicz, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board. The 12-foot tall bus was traveling at about 45 miles per hour in the right hand lane when it collided with the 10-foot, 2-inch stone arch of the Alexandria Avenue Bridge.

As the momentum of the bus carried it beneath the bridge span, its roof was torn from its frame. It stopped 470 feet past the bridge, according to the NTSB. Ten students were injured, one seriously. The NTSB concluded that the driver did not brake until the bus had hit the bridge.

In the left lane of the parkway, the bridge has a 13-foot, four-inch clearance. The 44-year-old bus driver had passed warning signs indicating this. He acknowledged to investigators that he had been talking on his phone. Scott Fear, a spokesman for the National Parks Police, which oversees the parkway, said the driver was charged with reckless driving and failing to obey a traffic sign.

Two years later, the NTSB, has issued a report on the accident that calls for federal and state governments to prohibit motor coach and school bus drivers from using cell phones while driving their vehicles, except in emergencies.

“The Safety Board concluded that the driver's cognitive distraction resulting from his use of a hands-free cell phone caused the accident. The use of either a hand-held or hands-free cellular telephone while driving can impair the performance of even a Commercial Drivers License (CDL) holder,” reads an NTSB news release. "Payment for transportation services creates an implicit contract between the passenger and the carrier that the carrier will transport the passenger safely and not allow the vehicle operator to take unnecessary risks."

The NTSB also found that the low vertical clearance of the bridge, which does not meet current standards, contributed to the accident.

MIKE MCDONALD, Eyre’s Director of Operations, said the company has a no-cell phone policy for all of its drivers. It was put in place on Nov. 15, 2004.

He said that even hands-free phones can cause major distractions for drivers. “Even though they follow the laws of being hands free, it’s not a matter of your hands being on the wheel, it’s a matter of your mind being on what you’re doing.”

McDonald said that in 2006, the number of collisions in Eyre’s 39-bus fleet dropped 50 percent compared to 2005.

The NTSB’s Lopatkiewicz said a lack of data makes the impact of cell phone use difficult to determine. The NTSB called for all states to include categories for cell phone use in their accident report forms.

The recommendation to ban cell phones for bus drivers was sent to the Federal Department of Transportation, which establishes requirements for commercial drivers’ licenses, and to the governments of all 50 states and D.C., which are responsible for issuing drivers’ licenses. It called for legislation in every state to ban cell phone use by bus drivers. Lopatkiewicz said about 82 percent of NTSB recommendations are adopted by their recipients.

Duane DeBruyne, a spokesman for DOT’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said the agency would consider the recommendation. “We received NTSB’s recommendation and look forward to working with them. Motor coach operators must ensure that their operations are safe and their drivers are reliable, and we need to seriously consider all opportunities to improve motor coach safety.”